SAN FRANCISCO (July 5, 2016)–For the first time in its 25-year history, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has ruled that an American citizen, Phan (“Sandy”) Phan-Gillis, has been arbitrarily deprived of her liberty by the Chinese government, in violation of international human rights law and the relevant provisions of China’s criminal procedure law. The WGAD has called on the Chinese authorities to release Phan-Gillis, who is now 56 years old and has worked tirelessly to promote US-China relations for more than 20 years. She served as either Vice President or President of the Houston Shenzhen Sister City Association for over 20 years, and she was President of the association at the time of her initial detention.

The WGAD posted its opinion (available here) on Wednesday, June 29, not only calling for the release of Phan-Gillis, but also considering it “appropriate to refer allegations of torture and inhuman treatment to the Special Rapporteur on Torture for appropriate action.”

Phan-Gillis was taken into custody by agents of the Nanning State Security Bureau at the border crossing between Macau and China on March 19, 2015. She was taken to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where, on March 20, 2015, she was placed under “designated location residential surveillance” (DLRS), a coercive measure in which a suspect in an endangering state security case is held incommunicado, without access to legal counsel, for a maximum period of six months. DLRS, frequently used against Chinese dissidents but rarely used against foreigners, has been condemned by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Detention as constituting enforced or involuntary disappearance, a violation of international human rights law. There have been numerous reports in the media and by human rights organizations about harsh interrogation and even torture of other detainees during DLRS. The interrogation of Phan-Gillis took a physical and mental toll, leading to her hospitalization for a period of five days.

At the end of her six-month DLRS term, Phan-Gillis was formally detained on September 20, 2015. She was moved to the Nanning Number Two Detention Center where she was placed in solitary confinement and subjected to interrogation twice a day. According to information provided by the Chinese government to the WGAD, Phan-Gillis was formally arrested on October 26, 2015 and charged with “assisting in the theft of state secrets,” a crime of endangering state security. (Phan-Gillis is currently the only American being held on suspicion of endangering China’s state security.) On May 26, 2016, the case was handed over to the Nanning procuratorate (the prosecutor in the Chinese legal system), which is currently considering whether to indict Phan-Gillis. She now has a cell mate, and her health is said to have improved. Phan-Gillis has received monthly consular visits and, following submission of her case to the procuratorate, she has been allowed to see a lawyer for the first time since being taken into custody over 14 months earlier.

Despite repeated pleas (most recently by Secretary of State John Kerry during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Beijing in June) and requests by the U.S. government for information on Phan-Gillis, the Chinese government has thus far failed to provide evidence to support any charges that may be pending against her.

“The WGAD has, over the years, ruled that the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained scores of its own citizens, but this marks the first time it has ruled that agents have arbitrarily detained an American citizen in violation of international human rights law,” noted John Kamm, Executive Director of The Dui Hua Foundation. “Ms. Phan-Gillis’ arbitrary detention and her treatment at the hands of China’s state security police has badly damaged US-China relations. Dui Hua joins the WGAD, the American government, and members of Congress in calling for Sandy Phan-Gillis’ immediate release.”